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Peerless Mills has a new owner

Steven Hen

The 1 million square foot mill that once employed more than 3,000 and was the heart of Rossville before a devastating fire on June 10, 1967, has been purchased by Steven Henry at auction.

Henry's winning bid of $125,000 was for the mill and its nearly 27-acre site was accepted Thursday afternoon, June 15, 2017, nearly an half-century since the mill's closing.

A builder and developer, Henry also serves as chairman of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners and was unable to attend the "walk through" of the mill due to being out of town for commissioners training.

"I got there five minutes before the auction," he said, adding that he was as surprised as anyone that his was the winning bid.

All qualified bidders were told the facility would either required renovation to meet current codes or be demolished and its rubble be properly disposed of.

Henry said he has no definite plans for the property, but is aware that there are issues concerning storm sewers, water lines and the possible need for the

Whether or not that dream comes true — and nothing can move forward until after the sale closes within the next three weeks — Henry views this as an opportunity to bring a piece of history back to life.

"It will be a long term project," he said. "I want it be part of the ongoing efforts to revitalize Rossville."

Double whammy of mill closing and massive fire led to Rossville's decline

Editors note: This article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Past Times magazine.

Unlike a phoenix that rises anew from its funeral pyre ashes, Rossville never recovered from a 1967 fire that burned for days and consumed roughly a third of a 1.5-million-squarefoot complex that was formerly a textile mill.

"Up to the point of the big fire everything was running smoothly," Doris White said. "But after that, there was nowhere to turn."

White and her husband, Hoyt, had moved from Fyffe, Alabama, in 1951 to work at Peerless Woolen Mills.

Peerless was founded and Rossville was chartered as a city in the same year: 1905. And for three score and more years, the fate of both were intertwined.

As Peerless Woolen Mill grew to become the world's premier producer of woolen fabric, Rossville's population and prosperity grew.

"Money was to be made in the plant," White recalled.

During World War II nearly every military blanket, and mile upon mile of woolen uniform material, was shipped from the Rossville plant. In addition to covers and clothes, its fabric was used to upholster automobile interiors both before and after two World Wars.

But the mill owned by John L. Hutcheson did more than put bread on the tables and shoes on the feet of its employees. Hutcheson's largesse added greatly to the quality of life for the mill workers and the town.

'The mill drove the town'

Today's Cornerstone Hospital in Fort Oglethorpe, previously known as Hutcheson Medical Center to honor Peerless' owner, began life as Tri-County Hospital and was funded in large part by payroll deductions taken from Peerless and other area textile plants.

Peerless built a community center, complete with a bowling alley, for its employees, fielded industrial league teams in softball, baseball and basketball — once even bringing the

Harlem Globetrotters to town for an exhibition game. There was also a companyowned recreation area on Lake Chickamauga, north of Chattanooga, for Peerless workers.

"The mill drove the town," White said. "Working there, it was like an extended family."

That "mill" that employed as many as 3,000 during its heyday was sold to Burlington Industries in 1952, but changes throughout the Eisenhower years were few.

The city had fashion boutiques, jewelry stores, groceries, variety stores, service stations and even a branch of the Chattanoogabased Loveman's, a department store chain.

"We had everything we needed in Rossville," White recalled, adding that the city's prosperity spread across the state line as far as Chattanooga's East Lake community.

But Rossville's decline and fall was foreshadowed when Burlington shut down its production lines in 1961.

The United States textile industry changed radically throughout the 1960s with many jobs in "thread mills" throughout the South going to lower cost producers in Asia, Central or South America.

Reports from the time vary, but the prospects of unionization at the former Peerless facility were factors in Burlington's decision to close.

"The reason they gave for closing was that we were operating in the red (losing money), but everyone knew that wasn't the reason," White said.

She said that even after the mill closed, the merchants worked closely to keep Rossville a vibrant place. Civic organizations, elected officials and an active development group helped during a transitional period for the city — "it was different, but still vibrant" — but then came the fire.

Lifelong Rossville resident and historian Larry Rose Sr. said he remembers the relocation of the original John Ross House — where the Cherokee chief had lived until the Trail of Tears exodus of 1838 and later used by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War — as the most important, historically, event of the '60s.

But the fire was a gamechanger for both Rossville and nearby Chattanooga and East Ridge, Tennessee.

Rose agrees that Rossville and its mill were synonymous.

The city wasn't just a bedroom community for Chattanooga, he said, "it was a miniature big city," but one destroyed by fire.

"It seemed like everything went away at the same time," Rose said. "Moving the mill operations to Cleveland, Tennessee, was hard, but it was just gone after that (the fire)."

This time was different

After Burlington liquidated it assets and laid off as many as 1,700 workers, a group of local business leaders formed the Rossville Development Company and brought 15 smaller businesses to the 27-acre site.

The fire White and Rose refer to occurred in the wee hours of June 10, 1967, when a shorted-out electrical transformer sparked a blaze — still considered one of the largest industrial conflagrations in U.S. history — on the second floor of the Heritage Quilts factory.

Sprinklers failed and low water pressure made it nearly impossible to contain an inferno that roared through a building whose floors were saturated from decades of wool lanolin and machine oil.

Firefighters from 10 of the surrounding area's volunteer and municipal departments — from as far away as Hixson, Tennessee, to the north and Rome to the south — rushed to join in fighting a fire that raged out of control for more than eight hours. Walls collapsed and waves of intense heat forced firefighters to keep their distance from the four square blocks that were involved.

Shortly after sunrise on a Sunday morning the worst was over, but throughout that day and into the next crews stood ready to beat back any hot spots that reignited.

Rose said records show 10 of the businesses — Rossville Yarn and Processing, Southern Universal Processing, Heritage Quilts, Beauty-Tuft, Rossville Carpet Dyeing, Quilted Textiles, Borg Fabrics, Rossville Spinning, Moccasin Bend Carpet and O.W. Jorges and Son — were either destroyed or heavily damaged.

Yet for all the destruction, there were no fatalities and only one minor injury reported.

On the Monday following the fire, Gov. Lester Maddox led a group of state officials to survey the scene. Those officials came to offer help to those whose workplaces were reduced to smoking ruins, saying that they would receive unemployment compensation and find new jobs.

Similar assurances had followed the Peerless closure and most, if not all, had continued with the jobs and crafts they were accustomed to.

But this time was different.

The damage was done.

Rossville had been beaten down again, and this time it stayed down for the count.

White went on to have a successful career in the banking industry, headed the Rossville Professional Women's Club, served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, was the 1984 Walker County Citizen of the Year and remains, a fixture on the boards of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations throughout the area.

And like many who recall the glory days of Rossville High School athletics, when its Bulldogs were a regional powerhouse, or retirees who remember when Rossville had a zero unemployment rate, White never strayed far afield.

"My heart was always in Rossville," she said.

Now, with new ownership atthe mill and a resurgence of residents and business owners wanting to revive their community, the city may again restore its luster as a Georgia gem.

Freedom Festival adding activities

The city of LaFayette continues bringing more free community events to the area with its annual Independence Day celebration: Freedom Festival.

This year's festival— on Friday, June 30 — will feature events throughout the day, including a hamburger eating contest, live music, an old timers baseball game, a free professional wrestling event and end with a traditional fireworks celebration.

The LaFayette Recreation Department, at 638 South Main St., once again hosts this outdoor event.

According to Parks & Recreations director Jason Shattuck, this year's festival begins at 5 p.m. and already has attracted more than 30 vendors.

This event is the first since the highly successful Honeybee Festival, held June 3, that attracted well over 10,000 to downtown LaFayette

"We are continuing our strategic plan in creating more robust community events," City Manager David Hamilton said.

Among the itsl attractions, the municpal pool will waive its normal $4-per-person charge and offer a "free swim" from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the day of the festival

There will be a baseball game at 7 p.m. between "Old Timers"— those 40 or older — and members of LaFayette Middle School's varsity basketball.

What's new this year?

There are several additions to beef up the free entertainment for the 2017 Freedom Festival.

Jim Powell Presents Southern Legacy Wrestling in LaFayette will have a free wrestling event inside the gymnasium with a bell time of 7 p.m. It will be an

action packed card as the Georgia Heat, the AIWF World Tag Team Champions, will defend their titles against Son's of Kaos. In the main event, LaFayette's own Adam Jacobs will square off against former world tag team champion Francisco Ciatso. There will be several other matches. All are free.

Krystal's in LaFayette will sponsor a hamburger eating contest. One winner will emerge out of the first 10 who register and will take home a trophy as the 2017 Freedom Festival Krystal's eating champion.

Those daring to enter will need to register at 7 p.m. at the recreation center to take part in the 2-minute contest that begins at 8 p.m.

During the wrestling show's intermission, one of its stars will take part in the eating contest, Powell said.

Also new are "Bubble Ball" soccer games from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Participants will slip into a bubble ball and take on their friends—bouncing off one another— in short intervals. This event is free for anyone at least 15 years old.

During the same 7-8 p.m. time frame, there will be a free cornhole tournament for the first 20 teams who sign up.

Live music

The local band Campbell Station will take the stage at 5:30 p.m. and another local band, Aunt Betty, will close the night out with a performance from 8:15 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The day's entertainment concludes with a fireworks show set to patriotic music that is slated to begin at about 10 p.m. — after dark.

"We are excited to continue to host the Freedom Festival and have our community take part in it," Shattuck said.'.

Area is on high alert, mosquitoes are here

Mosquito season has arrived and with it the threat of mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, now firmly entrenched in the U.S., and the emerging infectious disease, first appearing here in late 2015 and whose horrific effects we're still learning

Public health officials in Northwest Georgia are ramping up their prevention efforts and urging area residents to help control local mosquito populations by tipping or tossing away any containers in their yards that can hold water, thereby eliminating potential breeding areas.

Environmental health specialists from county health departments have begun conducting local mosquito surveillance in accordance with the Georgia Department of Public Health's Zika Preparedness and Response Action Plan. They're

trapping, collecting, and identifying local mosquitoes, hoping they don't find the Aedes aegypti species, the so-called yellow fever mosquito that loves to feed on humans and is the most competent of the Zika-transmitting mosquitoes. The yellow fever mosquito has previously been identified in Georgia only in a very limited area near Columbus, but could be elsewhere, hence the surveillance.

Another mosquito commonly found throughout the state, Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, can also transmit Zika virus. However, it prefers to feed on animals instead of humans, so it's not as competent transmitting the disease as Aedes aegypti.

Bites from another type of mosquito commonly found in Northwest Georgia, Culex quinquefasciatus, the southern house mosquito, can transmit the deadly West Nile virus, which now regularly occurs throughout the country. Georgia confirmed seven West Nile cases in 2016, fortunately no deaths.

Since Zika virus first appeared in the U.S., in 2016, all 118 Georgia cases -- just 4 so far this year -- have been travel related, someone has become infected in an area where there is active Zika transmission. But local transmission has occurred in Florida and Texas, and public health officials are concerned that it could happen in Georgia, too.

"Local Zika transmission is something we hope will never happen," says Tim Allee, environmental health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District, "but conceivably could, so we've been preparing for that possibility." How might that happen?

"If a mosquito bites an infected person while the virus is still in that person's blood, it gets infected and can spread the virus when biting another person," Allee explains. "So even if they don't feel sick or have symptoms, travelers returning to the U.S., from an area with Zika should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks so that they don't spread Zika to mosquitoes, who can then spread Zika to other people, which would be local transmission."

Other travel-related Zika guidance urges pregnant women to avoid travel to affected countries and advises female travelers who are considering pregnancy to talk to their doctors before heading to those destinations. If a pregnant woman or her partner travel to an area with risk of Zika, the couple should use condoms from start to finish every time they have sex or not have sex for the entire pregnancy, even if the traveler does not have symptoms of Zika or feel sick. A continuously updated world map showing areas with risk of Zika may be found here:

Currently, no vaccine is available for Zika virus, so the best way to prevent becoming infected with Zika or another mosquito-borne disease, such as West Nile, is by avoiding mosquito bites. This can be done by reducing exposure through maximizing time indoors, wearing appropriate mosquito repellant products, such as DEET products, and wearing clothes that minimize skin exposure. Reducing local mosquito populations around your home is another key.

Tip 'n Toss

Public health officials are emphasizing that one of the most effective ways to control local mosquito populations and prevent the spread of mosquitoborne disease is by eliminating standing water around the home and in the yard, especially in any sort or size of container. "Tip 'n Toss -- it's a habit we wish everyone would develop and practice year-round," says Allee.

"We're urging people to clean up around their homes and yards to eliminate potential mosquito breeding areas," Allee says, "then continue practicing Tip 'n Toss, especially after every rainfall, through the summer months, into the fall and over the winter. If you have things in and around your home and yard that can hold water, even old bottle caps or upturned magnolia leaves, get rid of them. After every rainfall, and at least once a week, Tip 'n Toss."

"Dump out standing water in flowerpots and planters, children's toys, or trash containers. Don't allow water to accumulate in old tires, rain gutters, piles of leaves, or natural holes in vegetation. Tightly cover water storage containers, such as buckets, cisterns, and rain barrels, so that mosquitoes cannot get inside to lay eggs. For containers without lids and too big to Tip 'N Toss, such as bird baths and pools) use larvicides such as mosquito dunks or mosquito torpedoes -- they will not hurt birds or animals."

"Most mosquitoes often stay within several hundred feet of where they're hatched," Allee says, "so you can significantly reduce the number of mosquitoes around your home by doing this." Of course, mosquitoes don't recognize property lines, so "controlling their numbers has to be a collaborative effort among neighbors," Allee stresses.

Adult mosquitoes live inside and outside, so keep mosquitoes out of your home. Use screens on windows and doors, making sure they are in good repair and fit tightly. Use air conditioning when it's available. Mosquitoes are not strong fliers, so using fans on porches and patios can also help reduce mosquito exposure.

Personal Protection

Using personal protection to avoid mosquito bites when engaging in outdoor activities is also important, says Allee. "Wear lightweight long-sleeve shirts, long pants and socks. Using EPA-registered insect repellents containing 20-30 percent DEET or a product such as oil of lemon eucalyptus will reduce exposure to mosquitoes." For more information on EPA-registered insect repellants, visit

For more information, contact the Environmental Health office of your local county health department.

Georgia has had 118 confirmed travelrelated Zika cases since Epi efforts began in December 2015. Of those, health officials have only confirmed four travelrelated cases since Jan. 1, 2017. The last travel-related case was confirmed on May 4. No local transmission has occurred in Georgia, but officials are still conducting mosquito surveillance.

· Mosquito nuisance complaints increased significantly in the past few after heavy rain fell across the state. Weather and breeding sites for current conditions will elevate the number of flood water mosquito species, but do not typically increase populations of container breeders to the same degree, and these are the mosquitoes that transmit Zika..